Blinken in China for rare trip amid frosty ties and dim hopes for progress

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken began meetings in Beijing on Sunday — the first top American diplomat to visit China in five years — amid frosty bilateral ties and dim prospects for any breakthrough on the long list of disputes between the world’s two largest economies.

Having postponed a February trip after a suspected Chinese spy balloon flew over US airspace, Blinken is the highest-ranking US government official to visit China since President Joe Biden took office in January 2021.

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang greeted Blinken and his group at the door to a villa on the grounds of Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guest House, rather than inside the building as is customary.

The two made small talk as they walked in — Qin asking Blinken in English about his long trip from Washington. They then shook hands in front of a Chinese and an American flag.

After heading into a meeting room, neither Blinken nor Qin made comments in front of reporters who were briefly allowed in.

Chinese assistant foreign minister Hua Chunying, who is attending the meeting, tweeted a picture of Qin and Blinken shaking hands: “Hope this meeting can help steer China-US relations back to what the two Presidents agreed upon in Bali”.

During his stay through Monday, Blinken is also expected to meet with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and possibly President Xi Jinping.

US officials have since last week played down the prospect of a major breakthrough during the trip, but said Blinken’s primary goal was to establish open and durable communication channels to ensure strategic rivalry between the two countries does not spiral into conflict.

US officials and analysts expect Blinken’s visit will pave the way for more bilateral meetings between Washington and Beijing in the coming months, including possible trips by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.

It could also set the stage for meetings between Xi and Biden at multilateral summits later in the year.

Speaking with reporters on Sunday about the balloon incident in February, Biden said he did not think the Chinese leadership knew much about where the balloon was or what it did while adding that he hoped to meet Xi soon.

“I’m hoping that, over the next several months, I’ll be meeting with Xi again and talking about legitimate differences we have but also how there’s areas we can get along,” Biden said.

Biden and Xi held their long-awaited first face-to-face talks on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 big economies in November on the Indonesian island of Bali, engaging in blunt talks over Taiwan and North Korea but also pledging more frequent communication.

While that meeting briefly eased the fear of a new Cold War, the flight of the Chinese balloon over the United States a few months later escalated tension, and high-level communication since then has been rare.

Risk of miscalculation
Ties between the countries have deteriorated across the board, raising concern that they might one day clash militarily over the self-governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

They are also at odds over issues as varied as trade, US efforts to hold back China’s semiconductor industry and Beijing’s human rights record.

Blinken’s visit will also be closely followed by the rest of the world as any escalation between superpowers could have worldwide repercussions on anything from financial markets to trade routes and practices and global supply chains.

“There’s a recognition on both sides that we do need to have senior-level channels of communication,” a senior State Department official told reporters during a refuelling stop in Tokyo en route to Beijing.

“That we are at an important point in the relationship where I think reducing the risk of miscalculation, or as our Chinese friends often say, stopping the downward spiral in the relationship, is something that’s important,” the official said.

Particularly alarming for China’s neighbours has been its reluctance to engage in regular military-to-military talks with Washington.

Speaking at a press conference on Friday before departing for Beijing, Blinken said his trip had three main objectives: Setting up mechanisms for crisis management, advancing US and allies’ interests and speaking directly about related concerns, and exploring areas of potential cooperation.

He said he would also be raising the issue of US citizens detained in China on charges Washington says are politically motivated.

Blinken and his delegation will also likely discuss increasing commercial flights between the two countries and stemming the flow of fentanyl precursors from China, US officials have said, but cautioned against high expectations of success.

“Both sides are well aware of the current state of the bilateral relationship. We’re coming here in an effort to make sure that we can manage it responsibly,” one US official said.

Top US- China exchanges since Biden took office
Below is a list of some of the other high-level US-China exchanges since then.

Biden-Xi phone call — February 10, 2021

Biden and his Chinese counterpart Jinping held their first phone call as leaders and appeared at odds on issues ranging from trade to human rights, even as Xi warned that confrontation would be a “disaster” for both nations.

First high level meeting — March 18, 2021

The first US and China high-level face-to-face meeting under Biden’s administration was in Anchorage, Alaska. It got off to a fiery start with both sides rebuking each others’ policies in a rare public display that underscored the tensions.

The talks were led on the US side by Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and on the Chinese side by senior diplomats Yang Jiechi and Wang Yi.

Free trade stocks — May 26, 2021

US Trade Representative Katherine Tai and China’s then Vice Premier Liu He held talks virtually, the first such high level trade talks between the world’s two biggest economies since Biden took office.

Senior US diplomat visits China — July 26, 2021

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman held talks with State Councillor Wang Yi, in Tianjin, China. She remains the top US official to visit China since Biden became president.

Biden and Xi hold virtual meeting — November 15, 2021

Biden and Xi spoke via video link for the first time in talks lasting more than three hours which covered a wide range of topics including Taiwan, North Korea and trade.

Sullivan-Yang talks in Rome — March 14, 2021

Weeks after China’s close ally Russia invaded Ukraine, Sullivan held a seven-hour meeting with Yang to warn Beijing not to aid Moscow’s war effort.

Defence chiefs hold first talks — April 20, 2022

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a call with China’s then defence minister Wei Fenghe, the first talks between the two officials since Biden took office.

Blinked and Wang hold talks in New York — September 23, 2022

Taiwan was the focus of the 90-minute, “direct and honest” talks between Blinken and Wang on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, a US official told reporters.

The talks came just over a month after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, the democratic island China claims as its own, triggering a furious reaction from Beijing.

Biden and Xi meet in Bali — November 14, 2022

Biden and Xi held their long-awaited first face-to-face leadership talks on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. During the three-and-a-half hours of talks the pair covered topics including Taiwan and nuclear-armed North Korea.

Vice President Harris greets Xi in Bangkok — November 19, 2022

US Vice President Kamala Harris met briefly with Xi on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation APEC summit in Thailand.

Blinken and Wang hold strict Munich talks — February 19, 2023

The top diplomats of the two superpowers, Blinken and Wang, met at an undisclosed location on the sidelines of a global security conference in Munich, amidst an ongoing dispute over the US downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon.

US, China commerce officials trade barbs in Washington — May 25, 2023

US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao traded barbs on trade, investment and export policies in face-to-face talks in Washington DC described by Raimondo’s office as “candid and substantive.”

US defence chiefs shake hands at Shangri-La dialogue — June 2, 2023

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin shook hands with China’s Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu on the sidelines of a security summit in Singapore but the two did not have a “substantive exchange,” according to the Pentagon. The handshake came after China previously rejected a proposal from the US for Austin and Li to hold formal talks at the Shangri-La Dialogue.